Zeal is a difficult term. For one, you can’t avoid the religious, almost hyper-religious, tone of the word. One rarely hears about zeal without it being in the context of religious persecution. “ISIS zealously persecutes Christians,” or “The crusaders zealously brought Christianity into the Holy Land.” Neither one of these sounds like something a person should try to imitate. More often than not, when “zeal” or “zealous” are thrown into the description of something, it’s almost enough to turn people off to whatever is being described. “Lance Armstrong zealously chased victory in the Tour-de-France.” Yeah, the problem was his zeal, his obsession with victory. He couldn’t let it go. If he was less zealous for victory, maybe he wouldn’t have cheated in the races. Maybe he would have won fairly. But here is not the place to discuss what Lance Armstrong should or should not have done. Either way, we see the implication of the word “zeal” isn’t exactly a good one, and generally connotes an obsession with something to an unhealthy degree.
So we have a bit of a problem when we read in John 2:17, “Zeal for your house will consume me,” as Jesus dramatically sends the merchants and the money-changers out of the temple by overturning their stalls and wreaking general havoc. We then come to several different places throughout the New Testament where we’re told to imitate Christ (Eph. 5:1, 1 Pet. 2:21, 1 Cor. 11:1). The question arises, “How do I imitate a man who sent merchants in the Temple running while being told to love people like the merchants at the same time?” How can I love someone while apparently acting unloving toward them?
The problem isn’t a matter of loving someone and then stopping for whatever reason, though. Instead, it is a matter of the priorities of love. I full-heartedly believe that Jesus never stopped loving those merchants, even as he overturned their tables and poured their money on the ground. “But,” I hear someone asking, “how could Jesus do something like that and still love them?” Because in the priorities of Jesus’ love, those merchants were not in the first spot.
Think of it like this: A man has a wife and a kid. He loves both of them dearly, being willing to give up anything for their benefit. Now in this family, the kid at some point comes into conflict with the wife. In this conflict, the kid acts out and hits the wife. Now the man comes into the picture and intervenes, disciplining the kid with a quick spanking, then like a good father, explains why he spanked the kid, and tells the kid that he loves him. Here, we come to the point of the story. The man loved both his wife and his kid, but in the priorities of his love, his wife ranked first. This is why when it came to a conflict between his two loves, he chose to side with her. It isn’t because, if only for a moment, he stopped loving his kid for the sake of discipline.
Coming back to John, we see the same principle applied. Jesus loved the merchants, but he had a higher love to which he was much more devoted. But what is that higher love? By what authority could Jesus come into the Temple and tear down the market? Or like the Jews asked in v.18, “What sign do you show us for doing these things?” Jesus gives an interesting answer. He doesn’t tell them “you’re making a mockery of the Temple,” and he already told them in v.16, “do not make my Father’s house a house of trade.” No, He answers them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will build it up.” Hindsight and v.21 show us that he was talking about his own body, and it’s not an insignificant answer. When asked “What sign do you show,” he points to the resurrection. What was Jesus’ priority love? He points to the resurrection.
Jesus was entirely devoted to the glory of God and the witnessing of that glory by everyone. Looking at the Temple historically, you see the merchants were in the court of the gentiles. By doing business there, the merchants were actively hindering the gentiles’ ability to focus on God. Jesus showed his primary love by reestablishing the gentiles’ ability to worship God in the Temple, and then by pointing to the establishment of the ability to worship God everywhere.
If we are to truly imitate Christ, as we are told to, our priority must be the glory of God in the resurrected Christ. Whatever acts we do must point to His greatness. Remember 1 Corinthians 10:31, “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all for the glory of God.”
That is what true zeal looks like.